Friday January 23rd, 2015

The NHL and NHLPA finally got around to confirming what everybody already knew: the World Cup of Hockey will return in 2016.

Now comes the fun part: Convincing the fans and the players in a post-Olympic world that this tournament matters.

As expected, it will feature the national teams of Canada, the United States, the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland and Sweden, with all games slated for Toronto's Air Canada Centre from Sept. 17-Oct 1.

But instead of rounding out the eight-team field with middling powers like Slovakia, Switzerland or Germany, there will be two non-aligned clubs. The first, a European All-Star team, would conceivably feature players like Slovenia's Anze Kopitar, Slovakians Tomas Tatar and Zdeno Chara and Norwegian Mats Zuccarello. The second (North American Youngstars) will be comprised of Canadian and American players under 23 years of age.

Why do this? Simple. This is an NHL/NHLPA event and they want to get the maximum number of NHL players involved.

The unified team concept leads to many questions. Who will coach them? What uniforms will they wear? What anthems will be played?

NHL
Who plays for Team Europe, North American Youngstars in World Cup?

But the bigger issue is how the NHL and NHLPA will convince these players to participate.

It shouldn't be a problem to populate the Youngstars. Although the team will ask fierce rivals to band together, these kids are used to playing together. And no one will want to miss a chance to make an impression with possible Olympic spots to be won just two years down the road.

The European club, though, might be a challenge. Reaction to the concept has been mixed.

“If it was 10 years ago it would be upsetting because 10 years ago we had a lot of guys in the NHL,” Slovakian-born netminder Jaroslav Halak said on Friday. “Right now, we got maybe 12. So that would be tough to make a team out of 12 guys.

“It will be different to see [the rest of Euro all-star team] but at the same time I’m open to it. It would be nice to play with some other players from different countries.”

“It’s awesome,” said Latvian Zemgus Girgensons. "It would be a little bit different, having random countries together, but it would increase the level of hockey [in Latvia]. It would be sweet to go after the big countries.”

Kopitar thinks it could be a “cool experience.”

“I think [organizers] are trying to make it competitive and the best possible tournament it can be, so if that's the case, that's what it is,” he said.

Others though are less enthused.

“I don't like it at all. Not one thing about it,” Philadelphia defenseman Mark Streit told The Courier-Post. “It's a nations tournament. You love playing for your country."

“It's supposed to be the top eight [countries],” said Streit, who has represented Switzerland in four Olympic tournaments and 12 World Championships. “For players, you want to play for your team. That's the whole purpose of it. I don't know. I don't like it at all. There's supposed to be the top eight. Go with that. Whoever's in is in; whoever's not is not. This is…I don't know.”

He's not alone in voicing his opposition. Marian Hossa told a Slovakian paper that he was “not comfortable” with the idea of playing for a European club instead of Team Slovakia. Another player, speaking off the record, told SI.com that he might go if asked but said he dreamed of representing his country, not Team Europe.

No doubt the NHLPA has a plan in to sway the doubters, but they have their work cut out for them.

What enticement could lure a veteran like Hossa or Streit to suit up? National pride is out, and I'm guessing neither is too concerned about union funds and HRR and the like. And will other Slovakian and Swiss players feel like participating after their very capable national teams were snubbed?

There's nothing wrong with throwing an idea against the wall. But the NHL and NHLPA shouldn't be surprised if this one doesn't exactly stick.

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